What Flow Is and How to Find It

Flow is the state where you are so totally immersed in and concentrated on your work that you don’t notice the passage of time. You’re aware of what you’re doing, but less aware of your surroundings and even your body, which is why although flow can be good for your creativity, it can be bad for your back. This state is described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi* in his book Flow. Other terms for it are being on a roll or in the zone.

Flow Creativity Time
Photo © Valua Vitaly • Fotolia

I know last time I said write in the gaps. This isn’t either/or. Do both. But to achieve flow you do need big blocks of time — so schedule them. You can’t just wait for a great whacking chunk of time to open up. You have to create it. It has to be one of your big rocks.

If you’re like me, the first 10 or 15 minutes are the hardest. That’s when it’s tempting to get up for another cup of tea or a snack. Don’t. Keep writing, push through, and pretty soon you’ll check the clock and 55 minutes will have elapsed. That’s flow.

A while back I wrote about the Pomodoro Method, in which a kitchen timer can be used to help break up small tasks into manageable chunks of time. But if you’re aiming for flow, you don’t want a timer to ding and knock you out of it, so a stopwatch is better. Don’t take a break until at least 20 minutes have passed. Usually you’ll get into flow by then.

Tony Schwartz, the author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, recommends 90-minute working segments for high-intensity tasks. His work is based on the idea that, like athletic work, mental work requires alternating periods of work and rest.

The research he looked at pointed to 90 minutes as being the maximum time to work at a stretch—if you go longer than that, you start getting an energy lag and you trigger stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. You may also experience static muscle loading, which causes pain and stiffness. The prefrontal cortex begins to shut down, so we actually become less capable of thinking clearly, which is what we mean when we say our brain is fried.

Make it a high priority to find at least one time a day — preferably in the morning — to focus single-mindedly on your most challenging and important task for 60 to 90 minutes. — Tony Schwartz

Mornings may not work for you if you’re a night owl like me. Pay attention to your own rhythms. Know when you’re at your best. Schedule that as your writing time, if you can (maybe it falls in the middle of the workday. If so, find the next-best). Once you’ve scheduled a block of writing time, protect it. Marc McGuinness refers to this as ring-fencing your time.

The secret to getting things done is knowing when you’re most productive, and scheduling your most important tasks for that time. Likewise, the little mistake that kills your productivity is ceding your best hours to meetings, phone calls, or even personal things like dental appointments. In a distracted world, it’s hard enough to focus. So why make it harder for yourself? — Laura Vanderkam

I love that phrase of Vanderkam’s: the little mistake that kills your productivity. That’s why I now schedule most appointments early in the day, so I can save my afternoons for creative work, whether that’s editing for clients or writing for myself.

Like Schwartz, Vanderkam advises tackling hard tasks in the morning when you’re fresh. She found her most productive time of day was 8–10:30 in the morning. She has written several books, including What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

You may have to make some lifestyle changes. Maybe schedule activities for your kids and then get your spouse to drive them there. Or adjust your sleep schedule. Do what you can to protect your creative time.

* It’s pronounced Mee-hi Chick-sent-mee-hi. Really.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. […] Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, says you need a 90-minute working session to do great work on a high-intensity […]

  2. […] When we talked about flow, I mentioned Mark McGuinness’s advice to ring-fence your time. The question then is—how? […]

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